Reviewed By Lybarger
Posted 06/26/10 05:44:00

"It’s as close to being in a war without getting wounded."
5 stars (Awesome)

Screened at True/False 2010: Over the last decade, embedded reporting has become a common practice. What makes the new documentary ‘Restrepo’ special is that it goes from embedded to immersive. Without having to dodge bullets or mortar rounds yourself, the film givers viewers an astonishingly vivid sense of what it was like to serve as a soldier in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan from 2007 to 2008.

Freshman directors Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger have covered the second platoon of Battle Company in a unique manner. Instead of showing up at a combat zone with the troops and leaving a few days or weeks later, the filmmakers, working both together and apart, followed the platoon for nearly their entire deployment and even interviewed them in detail months after their mission in the area was over.

As a result, “Restrepo” is full of astonishing images and revelations. For example, the film begins with the convoy carrying the soldiers being attacked on their way to their main outpost. In addition to seeing the men coming under attack, Hetherington and Junger also capture what it’s like to wait for the bullets to come flying.

The results are surprising. Outpost Restrepo, which is named after the late PFC Juan “Doc” Restrepo, is on top of a hill to give the Americans an advantage over the Taliban. The Korengal is close to the border with Pakistan, so obviously insurgents can their supplies through the area. The platoon’s leader Captain Kearney in the film describes the outpost as a “middle finger” to the enemy. To hold the spot at Outpost Restrepo, the men have to go without running water or electricity. Essentially, it’s a hole in the dirt with makeshift walls.

But it’s hardly joyless. At times it’s downright hilarious watching the solders attempting to make the place resemble a home for the rest of their deployment. The ingenuity the soldiers apply to their unpleasant tasks is astonishing.

When the men do come under attack, you can feel a rush as they start firing rounds at their distant, sometimes unseen targets. Junger and Hetherington don’t who what happens when American get hurt or wounded, but unexpectedly they’re wise not to. Hetherington and Junger interviewed the soldiers after they had returned to their regular base in Vicenza, Italy. Now that they’ve had time to process their thoughts and feel their wounds, they speak with astonishing candor about how the stress of combat has affected them. One describes without a sense of gloom in his voice about the nightmares he’s had since his return from the Korengal, which has earned the unfortunate nickname of “The Afghanistan of Afghanistan” because the fighting has been so dangerous there.

The film features only a few minutes with the people of the Korengal, but it’s telling. Kearney and his subordinates have long and seemingly futile negotiations with them discussing civilian casualties. One victim of the combat, a cow, leads to protracted haranguing because the farmers in the area can’t afford to lose their livestock. During these sequences, it starts to become clearer to see why the war has carried on for as long as it has.

Hetherington and Junger have managed to get so close to the second platoon that it’s as if they’ve entered the skin of the people they’ve covered. There’s little discussion of the broader war effort because it becomes obvious that staying alive requires the soldiers to be focused on their current battles.

Although Junger has gained notoriety for his books like The Perfect Storm and his long form articles for Vanity Fair, he and Hetherington, who has shot still and video footage from combat zones, avoid voiceover and let the events and the soldiers speak for themselves.

This is also smart because the events don’t need embellishment. “Restrepo” took the top documentary prize at Sundance this year, and it’s probably because the film gets to the heart of what it’s like to be in the combat zone instead of trying to follow some partisan agenda.

Despite the sacrifices the platoon has made, Outpost Restrepo has been abandoned. As a civilian, I won’t say if it’s a good or bad development, but “Restrepo” does a terrific job of explaining why it’s difficult to come home from war.

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